On Wednesday, Davontae Sanford will walk free after eight years in prison for a 2007 quadruple murder in Detroit he did not commit — eight years after a paid assassin confessed to the crime, provided the murder weapon and said Sanford was innocent.
The Innocence Project at the University of Michigan, an advocacy group for the wrongly convicted, told CNN the then-14-year-old Sanford plead guilty "once he realized his defense attorney was not going to do anything to defend him." Two weeks later, hit man Vincent Smothers confessed, but Sanford languished under a 37-90 year prison sentence. In 2015, the Michigan State Police re-opened the case and recommended perjury charges for one of the officers who testified at his trial, according to CNN.
On Tuesday, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Brian Sullivan ordered Sanford immediately released and his conviction vacated, reported the Detroit Free Press.
According to the American Civil Liberty Union's Cassandra Stubbs, black defendants are significantly more likely than white defendants to be wrongfully convicted.
So too are impoverished defendants, wrote lawyer Arthur L. Rizer III in the William Mitchell Law Review. Rizer argued the "most prevalent [factors leading to wrongful convictions] are the lack of competent counsel, the lack of resources, police misconduct, the focus of law enforcement, and a general lack of credibility given the impoverished by society ... With the lack of credibility comes a host of other problems, such as police misconduct in the gathering of confessions. Based on what has been learned from DNA exonerations, 44% of wrongful convictions involved false confessions obtained through police misconduct."
That may well have been the case with Sanford's trial. Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth co-director Megan Crane told the Free Press Sanford was interrogated for two straight days on the killings, and his state-appointed attorney, who has faced state reprimands for misconduct, failed to bring the nature of Sanford's confession to light during the case.
Even with the alternative confession from Smothers, Sanford's appeals proceeded with "excruciating slowness," reported the Free Press.
According to the University of Michigan Law School's National Registry of Exonerations, the number of people cleared of crimes from prison has risen dramatically in recent years, rising to 154 in 2015 from 140 in 2014. From 2013 and prior, less than a hundred exonerations had occurred annually across the country.
The justice system only works when defendants are treated fairly by authorities and given a full and equal opportunity to argue their side in a court of law. In Sanford's case, that didn't happen —and it looks like race and poverty had a big role to play in explaining why.